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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Star-Spangled Banner, and the People Who Still Make it Wave


Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
 
 
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
 
 
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
 
 
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
--Francis Scott Key
Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

The words are familiar to every American, a song we’ve sung countless times and listened to even more often.  Most people don’t know that, even though the words were penned on a British ship in Baltimore Harbor in September of 1814, the song did not become the anthem of our nation until a congressional resolution was passed on March 3, 1931, and signed by President Hoover.
That’s an interesting tale in itself, as it wasn’t until Robert Ripley (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) pointed out that the United States as yet had no national anthem.  The tune came from John Stafford Smith, who originally composed it as “To Anacreon in Heaven” for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London.
It is a difficult song to sing, covering a musical span of one note over an octave and a half, as countless singers can attest.  But it is the history behind the words themselves that give the song it’s powerful meaning, and subsequent national status.
Of late, the anthem has come under fire from some, saying that the song glorifies war.  Maybe its time to take a closer look.
By 1814, Britain had defeated Napoleon in Europe, and was now free to send the bulk of her now-veteran troops across the Atlantic to deal with those pesky former colonials. 


On August 24th,  British soldiers overran the thin line of Americans defending approaches the Port of Baltimore at Bladensburg, Maryland.  The Redcoats marched on Washington, burning and looting the capitol, White House, Treasury, War Department, and other buildings.  The American government, led by James Madison, fled north to Brookeville, Maryland.  The British navy then sailed up the Potomac and took possession of Alexandria and Georgetown, and turned north setting their sites on Baltimore and its invaluable port.
About 5 miles from the city, the initial contingent of 5,000 British troops ran into heavy resistance at North Point, about 5 miles outside of Baltimore.  The commander of the Maryland Militia, Major General Samuel Smith, sent about 3,000 troops from the city to meet the British and stall their approach while the main line of defense was being fortified.  But the British flanked that line on Hampstead Hill and marched towards the city along what is now Maryland Route 7. 
The main American line consisted of some 10,000 troops, 100 cannons along with a few thousand militia and irregulars.  Once the outer defenses of Baltimore had been breached, attention now turned to the inner defenses, anchored by Fort McHenry.  The British commander decided to reduce to fort by artillery, rather than try a frontal assault, which would have been very costly, given the nature of the American bulwarks. 
On September 13th, 19 ships of the Royal Navy commenced their bombardment, including the rocket-armed vessel HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, Volcano, Meteor, Devastation, and Aetna, all armed with major-caliber mortars.  For the next 27 hours, some 1,800 British shells were thrown at the fort.  But recent efforts at fortifying the defenses kept the damage minor.
At dawn on the 14th, a huge flag, measuring 30 feet by 42 feet was raised above the fort’s walls, replacing a smaller flag which had been shredded during the bombardment.  It was a symbol, a statement really, that despite the worst that the British could do, the Americans were still there.
The British force withdrew, heading for their final assault on America which we know as the Battle of New Orleans.
An American lawyer and poet, Francis Scott Key, was aboard the HMS Tonnant, trying to negotiate the release of some American prisoners, especially a physician, Dr. William Beanes.  The British General Robert Ross agreed to the release, after reading some letters from some captured and wounded British soldiers who had been treated with kindness by Dr. Beanes.
During their parlay, the General Ross and Admiral Cockburn were alarmingly candid about their plans for the assault to follow.  Subsequently, the Americans were held aboard the ship until the assault ended, rather than risk having their battle plans fall into enemy hands.
All night, Key sat on the deck and watched the British thunder away at the fort.  The darkness kept him from seeing what was happening as far as the Americans troops were concerned.  But when the sun rose, its rays illumined the giant flag, the “Stars and Stripes,” as it waved majestically, and defiantly, above the fort.  Inspired, Key took an envelope containing a letter from his pocket and penned the initial verse.
The poem, initially entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” was given to Key’s brother-in-law, who set it to the tune.  The song was published in 19 newspapers across the country and became hugely popular.
It is unusual for a national hymn in that the first stanza, the one most well-known, contains three questions and one statement.  The first question asks if the flag, which had last been seen waving over the fort at sunset, would still be flying at sunrise.  Was the flag still waving over the ramparts of the fort despite the hail of shot, shell, and rocket throughout the night?
The only statement in that verse declares that since the bombardment continued all night, that was evidence that the Fort was still in American hands, and had not been surrendered.
The final question, really, is one for the ages.  In the decades and centuries to come, will that flag still be flying over the United States, the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
That’s the question the Key wrote for us, those Americans who would follow.  Today, we still salute that flag, and we still sing those words.  It's high time that we learned exactly what those words meant on that bright morning in September, and the lesson that is still relevant to us, 200 years later.
The message of the Star-Spangled Banner is not a glorification of war.  It is the testament to the courage of those Americans who fought and sacrificed to defeat what was then the most powerful empire on the planet in order to secure our freedom.  It is the thing that continues to define us to this day, a nation of people who face adversity with courage, who despite our ongoing arguments, never forget that we are all linked by that one word, “American.”  That flag which fluttered above Fort McHenry still says to this day that we are a people who love our freedom, and that we will sacrifice everything, even our very lives, to defend it. 

It is a declaration to the world that whatever challenge is thrown at us, be it military, economic, or diplomatic, we will meet head-on.  And we will prevail.
Because, my friends, we are Americans.
And we don’t do surrender. 
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